If you think you wouldn't raise your skirts for a rakish legend about the purifying powers of a unicorn's horn, then maybe you aren't a 15th-century serving girl under the sway of a velvet-tongued court painter of ill repute. In keeping with her bestselling Girl with a Pearl Earring
, and its Edwardian-era follow-up, Falling Angels
, Tracy Chevalier's tale of artistic creation and late-medieval amours, The Lady and the Unicorn
is a subtle study in social power, and the conflicts between love and duty. Nicolas des Innocents has been commissioned by the Parisian nobleman Jean Le Viste to design a series of large tapestries for his great hall (in real life, the famous Lady and the Unicorn
cycle, now in Paris's Musee National du Moyen-Age Thermes de Cluny). While Nicolas is measuring the walls, he meets a beautiful girl who turns out to be Jean Le Viste's daughter. Their passion is impossible for their world--so forbidden, given their class differences, that its only avenue of expression turns out to be those magnificent tapestries. The historical evidence on which this story is based is slight enough to allow the full play of Chevalier's imagination in this cleverly woven tale. --Regina Marler
From Publishers Weekly
Chevalier, whose bestselling Girl with a Pearl Earring showed how a picture can inspire thousands of words, yokes her limpid, quietly enthralling storytelling to the six Lady and the Unicorn tapestries that hang in the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris. As with her Vermeer novel, she takes full creative advantage of the mystery that shrouds an extraordinary collaborative work of art. Building on the little that is known or surmised - in this case that the tapestries were most likely commissioned by the French noble Jean Le Viste and made in a workshop in Brussels at the end of the 15th century - she imagines her way into a lost world. We are introduced to Nicholas des Innocents, the handsome, irrepressibly seductive artist who designed the works for the cold Le Viste, a rich, grim social climber who bought his way into the nobility and cares more about impressing the king and his court than pleasing the wife who has disappointed him by bearing three girls and no sons. Le Viste's wife, Genevieve, tells Nicholas to create scenes with a unicorn but Nicholas's love of women - and especially of Geneviève's beautiful daughter Claude - inspires the extraordinary faces and gestures of the women he depicts. A great romance unfolds. What makes the tale enthralling are the details Chevalier offers about the social customs of the time and, especially, the craft of weaving as it was practiced in Brussels. There are psychological anachronisms: would a young woman in medieval times express her pent-up frustrations by cutting herself as some teenage girls do today? Yet the genuine drama Chevalier orchestrates as the weavers race to complete the tapestries, and the deft way she herself weaves together each separate story strand, results in a work of genuine power and beauty. And yes, readers will inevitably think about what a gorgeous movie this would make.
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